Pandemic strains emergency responders with more disasters on horizon

By: - June 4, 2020 12:10 am

A TV news crew broadcasts from a destroyed neighborhood in north Dayton where a powerful tornado occurred early in the morning on May 28, 2019 in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images).

Federal officials have more money than ever to respond to disasters, but some worry their focus on the pandemic could hamstring efforts to recover from other catastrophes.

Congressional Democrats and health experts have warned in recent weeks that the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s pandemic response could come at the cost of its response to tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires.

“I think they will do their best to support the normal process,” Joyce Flinn, the director of the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said of FEMA. “But there are always variables. If it’s a bad hurricane season and they’re fighting hurricanes, if the COVID response is still as busy, we all realize that there will likely be some limitations on support we can expect from federal partners.”

Nationwide, FEMA has assigned 3,100 employees to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the agency still has 20,000 emergency management workers it could deploy for natural disasters.  FEMA is still preparing to face the upcoming disasters as it normally would, while taking into account the additional challenges a highly contagious disease presents, Administrator Pete Gaynor said during a press call this month.

The federal disaster relief fund is at an all-time high of $80 billion, Gaynor said. A FEMA spokesperson wrote in an email that the agency has restocked supplies like water and nonperishable meals. The current supply is “above and beyond the number of meals” the agency normally stores, the spokesperson wrote.

Flinn said her department didn’t often ask for federal assistance and will be prepared for potential flooding or tornadoes this summer.

Still, some officials are concerned about what could happen if disasters start to pile up.

More than 80 congressional Democrats wrote in an April letter that they worried FEMA would be unable to respond to both the pandemic and natural disasters.

“The COVID-19 response has overwhelmed FEMA’s already thin resources, raising concerns about the Agency’s ability to handle both a nationwide public health crisis and the upcoming seasonal hazards that await,” they wrote.

The U.S. House and Senate members who signed the letter asked Gaynor 22 questions related to how he planned to adjust the agency’s plans.

Bayley Sandy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that has jurisdiction over FEMA and whose leaders signed the letter, said the panel had not received a response from FEMA.

FEMA did issue a 59-page booklet advising state and local emergency management officials on the unique challenges of the 2020 hurricane season. The document said the agency would allow states to pay for hotel rooms as an alternative to shelters, for example.

Iowa would consider that option if needed for relocating flood victims, Flinn said. She also said the state could opt for more shelters than it normally would operate, hoping to allow social distancing even during sheltering.

Flinn added that after responding to COVID-19 for months, emergency responders have a handle on their roles. Her department could transition to natural disaster response if needed, she said.

Changing roles

The pandemic will change how FEMA and state agencies respond to disasters, said Juliette Kayyem, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy and former assistant secretary for Homeland Security in the Obama administration. Keeping first responders as safe as possible from the virus will be a major factor, she said.

In addition to limiting capacity at shelters or using hotel and motel space, officials will likely err on the side of ordering evacuations early to mitigate the need for shelters altogether. But after months of telling people to stay home, an order to evacuate might confuse some, she said.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said disaster plans for this year have not been fully vetted.

Responding to disasters during the pandemic is complicated for two reasons, Redlener said.

The established method of disaster response almost always includes community sheltering, which would make social distancing difficult and increase the risk of an extreme public health crisis breaking out as a community recovers from a disaster.

Additionally, institutional focus needed to overcome the more complex task of disaster management during a pandemic is being used mostly on the pandemic itself, he said.

“I think there’s a lot of thinking that has to be done, and I don’t see any evidence anywhere that this is actually happening in any way that is consistent with the challenges that are ahead of us,” Redlener said. “The people that would need to step up are 24/7 engaged in stopping the impact of the pandemic.”

The task is further complicated by the pandemic’s presence across the country. When three hurricanes hit Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Puerto Rico in a span of weeks in 2017, it exhausted FEMA supplies and physically exhausted its workers, Redlener said. With COVID-19 emergencies in every state, that dynamic could be even worse.

FEMA routinely does surge resources to trouble spots as they come up and the guidance to states said it was prepared to do so again this year.

The agency will also have some extra funding help.

The $2 trillion COVID-19 relief law President Donald Trump signed in March included $100 million for state emergency managers to plan and prepare emergency management related to the pandemic. Iowa received $1.3 million of that money. The state has also received an additional $145 million in federal disaster funds for COVID-19 response.

Still, it will be a challenge for an agency to change its longstanding practices after its workers have been on high alert for months, Kayyem said.

“It’s going to be a challenge both because our normal operating procedures will change, and two, you just have an exhaustion factor,” she said. “People are tired.”

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.